A phallic cactus advertising a men’s wellness company that delivers erectile dysfunction medication? MTA approved. A hand holding a vibrator made by a women’s wellness company? Not MTA approved.
This is the premise and core critique of Approved, Not Approved, a website launched on July 31 by sex-tech startups Dame Products and Unbound, both of which sell sexual wellness products, like vibrators. Approved, Not Approved allows users to play a guessing game of advertisements: Click through ads that draw on sexual imagery or innuendo, click the “approved” or “not approved” button, and finally see what the New York Metropolitan Transportation (MTA), Facebook, or Instagram deemed appropriate.
“People don’t see what’s not approved. You don’t see censorship, that’s the whole idea. So, how can I creatively, playfully engage consumers so they can see the challenges that I, as well as a lot of other female-founded companies, are facing?” Dame CEO Alexandra Fine said to Business Insider about the inspiration for Approved, Not Approved and the challenge of having her company’s ads not approved by Facebook and the MTA. “For Approved, Not Approved, I wanted to illuminate this challenge.”
The launch of Approved, Not Approved follows a lawsuit Dame filed in June against the MTA, which rejected the company’s ads featuring vibrators in New York City subways and stations, despite running other companies’ ads containing sexual imagery. In Dame’s complaint, it writes that the MTA’s decision to reject Dame’s advertisements “reveals the MTA’s sexism” as well as the MTA’s “decision to privilege male interests in advertising choices.” The complaint says that Dame is seeking damages, alleging the MTA violated the company’s right to due process, equal protection, and free speech.
“Sex and sexuality is used to sell everything,” Unbound CEO Polly Rodriguez said to Business Insider, using the example of an MTA-approved ad for bedding startup Brooklinen that Rodriguez identified as racy. “But the one time it’s not allowed to be used to sell products is when it’s for women and non-binary people, when it’s sex products for those populations.”
The MTA has pushed back, saying it’s a simple matter of policy: Ads featuring sex toys aren’t allowed.
“The MTA’s advertising policy and its decision not to display the Dame Products ads is not gender-based or viewpoint discriminatory,” a spokesperson for the MTA wrote in a statement to Business Insider. “Indeed, the MTA’s FAQs about its advertising policy clearly state that advertisements for sex toys or devices for any gender are not permitted.”
In the prohibited advertising section of the MTA’s advertising policy, Subsection 16 states that any ad that “promotes an escort service or sexually oriented business” is not allowed. Subsection 15 also prohibits any ad that “contains sexually explicit material that appeals to the prurient interest in sex or is so violent, frightening, or otherwise disturbing as to reasonably be deemed harmful to minors.”
The MTA’s addition of a clarification that sex toys fall under the banned category of “sexually oriented business” in Section 15 is relatively new: the clarification was added to the policy FAQ page on November 15, 2018, two months after Dame began working with the MTA ad agency Outfront on creating its ads, according to Vice.
The MTA statement also explains that FDA-approved medications, including those for sexual dysfunction of any gender, are permitted. Hence, the cactus ad from Hims — which sells a generic version of Viagra — can run.
“We believe all sexualities and genders deserve equal access to public forums,” a Hims spokesperson said to Business Insider. “Our mission is to empower all people with important information and options for their health and happiness and our advertising is intended to begin that conversation with the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have faced barriers to care or treatment options because of embarrassment, affordability or access issues.”
Approved, Not Approved launched the same day Dame and Unbound protested against ad censorship outside of Facebook’s New York office. Mira Mariah — an advocate for queer and disabled womxn who is known for her sparkly, womxn-centric tattoo designs (she’s Ariana Grande’s go-to tattoo artist) — joined the Approved, Not Approved peaceful protest.
“I’ve seen so many ads on the subway that objectify women, and make me feel objectified, and shove a patriarchal norm down our throats,” Mariah said to Business Insider. “To then see them not approve a message that is so clearly about female pleasure makes me feel like they’re making a statement about women’s disempowerment.”
“I feel that once we’re exploring anything that has to do with female pleasure — that doesn’t incorporate men — it’s no longer accepted, and suddenly it’s censored and unacceptable and taboo,” Mariah continued. “I don’t know where that’s coming from, and I don’t think it’s acceptable.”
Approved, Not Approved also features ads that Facebook has declined to run.
Section eight of Facebook’s advertising policy states that “Ads must not promote the sale or use of adult products or services, except for ads for family planning and contraception.” And even then, “Ads for contraceptives must focus on the contraceptive features of the product, and not on sexual pleasure or sexual enhancement, and must be targeted to people 18 years or older.”
A Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider that section eight is “the policy that has typically inhibited these advertisers from running,” referring to Dame and Unbound.
Unbound shared an email with Business Insider from another Facebook spokesperson, who also cited section nine, which states that “ads must not contain adult content. This includes nudity, depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions, or activities that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative.” The spokesperson said neither section eight nor nine were up for reconsideration at the time.